Former NYIT Athlete Shares Unique Baseball Journey

Courtesy of www.licollegians.com

"Rojas pitching when he was in the Philadelphia Phillies organization"

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As the senior students prepare for this year’s Commencement ceremony and begin the next step of their life, they all ask themselves one question. That is, “What does the future hold for me?” The answer is simple; you don’t know because anything can happen at any time. Former NYIT student athlete Chris Rojas was one of those who had an unpredictable journey in his career playing baseball. His rise from an NYIT walk-on to professional baseball isn’t what many sports fans would expect to read about, but it happened; although not without many years of hard work and dedication to the game of baseball.

Rojas grew up in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant and he didn’t begin playing organized baseball until he was in high school. He comes from a family surrounded by baseball. He was introduced to baseball by his mother when he was 4 years old. He always was a tough athlete playing with a lot of emotion. “Where I came from, it was ‘Bed Stuy’ do or die,” says Rojas. “The same mentality I had when I played was the same mentality I had at home. You talk loud and defend and protect yourself.”

Rojas attended Great Neck High School where he played baseball along with football and basketball. He moved to Long Island from Brooklyn when he was a sophomore in high school. When Rojas graduated high school in 1994, his coach at Great Neck wanted Rojas to continue his baseball career playing at NYIT for long-time coach Bob Hirschfield. “My high school coach told me NYIT was the right choice for baseball and I thought it was a great opportunity since it’s a Division 1 school,” says Rojas.

Rojas ended up as a walk on for the baseball team at NYIT and played for the Bears from 1994-1998. Walk on players don’t earn an athletic scholarship to play on the team and they have to try out to be part of the team. It’s not always easy no matter how good someone is at a sport to earn a spot on a team especially since NYIT’s baseball team plays at the Division 1 level. “Chris could play positions and he could pitch,” says Bears head coach Bob Hirschfield. “He had this unique ability to understand the concept I was teaching and put it into practice immediately,” Hirschfield also added.

Rojas learned the importance of understanding the game along with working harder to impress the coaching staff which helped him become a better player. “You never know when you’re going to be called upon to play so it’s important to always do the right thing on and off the field and be ready when the coach calls your name to play,” says Rojas. He began pitching for the Bears during his sophomore and junior seasons. He was slowly developed into the program until his junior year when he earned a job as a two-way player, starting in center field and as a starting pitcher.

He went on to be named All-Conference in the Mid Continent League in both his Junior and Senior seasons. At NYIT, he studied Criminal Justice along with playing baseball. Midway through his junior year at NYIT, Rojas injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while pitching. He also faced another important decision; if he wanted to continue pitching he was given an option to sit out his senior season and return to NYIT for a fifth season. Instead, he declined and decided to play first base and be the designated hitter while recovering from surgery. “It was more important for me just to be on the field playing every day, I didn’t want to take a year off,” he said.

When he graduated from NYIT in 1998 with a degree in Criminal Justice, Rojas wasn’t sure what his future was in baseball and Coach Bob Hirschfield remained on his side. Rojas later joined the Canton Crocodiles, an independent team of the Frontier League which in essence is the frontier of professional baseball. It’s a long way from the major league level, but still an opportunity for hungry young kids like Rojas eager to try and make a living at the game they love. “He is a wonderful person and has stayed connected with the program. He was very respectful and didn’t get a big head,” says coach Hirschfield.

He continued to work on regaining his arm strength recovering from Tommy John Surgery, which was suffered during his junior year at NYIT. This is a surgical procedure in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body often from the forearm, hamstring, knee, or foot of the patient. The procedure is common among collegiate and professional athletes in several sports. The surgery is named after Tommy John, a pitcher who was the first professional athlete to successfully undergo the operation. The procedure was performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974.

Those Canton coaches saw something as did Hirschfield to keep Rojas around for the full season. He was later offered a tryout for the Pittsburgh Pirates for the chance to be offered a contract by the organization. “I was the last guy they saw and it may have worked to my benefit. Once I was done, Bill Bryk, the Pirate Pitching Coordinator and a scout pulled me over to the side and asked if I wanted to be a Pirate.” He then joined the Pirates organization playing in Single-A in 1999 where he led his team in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. After the season, he was offered a tryout by the San Diego Padres and later played in their farm system.

While playing for the Padres Single A team, Chris was approached by an opposing team’s pitching coach after one of his outings who is a coach in the Puerto Rican Winter League wanting Rojas to play winter ball. “The coach set off a conversation with me and found out about my background and that my family is from Puerto Rico,” Rojas said, “He asked me if I would be interested in playing winter ball. I wanted to gain other experiences outside the minor leagues so I was ecstatic for the opportunity.” He ended up playing in the league with the Mayaguez Indios located in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico of the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. He pitched for the team for eight seasons which included pitching in two Caribbean World Series and achieving a lot of success. “When you realize how much people care and want you to win, it brings a different intensity level from playing in a minor league stadium,” says Rojas. “You’re playing with guys who are big leaguers and are more experienced which draws a different atmosphere and it was a great experience for me.”

In the 2002 season and still in the Padres minor league system, Chris was part of a pitching rotation at the Double-A level that was recognized by Baseball America as the best starting rotation in minor league history which included current Chicago White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy. During that season, Rojas began to build his own success and was ranked the 20th best prospect in the organization by Baseball America. After some success with the Padres organization, Rojas then moved to the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2005 where he signed a minor league deal with the club. He was named pitcher of the year in the Phillies organization despite missing the end of the season after suffering an injury.

The baseball journey for the NYIT graduate continued and reached his biggest moment in 2006 when he made Team Puerto Rico in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Many of Major League Baseball’s stars were on this team such as Ivan Rodriquez, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and even Rojas’ favorite player and childhood idol, former Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams. He got to witness the daily routine and approach Williams took of how he studied the game of baseball. Rojas was one of a few players who weren’t playing at the major league level that made the Puerto Rican team. He got to share a locker next to Williams and learned a lot from him during this event. In 6 games that the Puerto Rican team played, Rojas made one appearance pitching one inning of relief and retiring all three batters he faced. “Being selected to play in the WBC is by far the best experience and biggest joy that I had playing the game,” he said. “Those experiences were amazing.”

Following the WBC, Chris returned to the Pirates but he only made three starts due to an injury he suffered from playing in winter ball. He wanted to pitch through that injury to make the Puerto Rican team even though his strength wasn’t there. He didn’t want to end his career because of an injury so he worked on rehabbing to pitch again. He also pitched for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League and was later purchased by the Phillies and headed to Double-A. He finished his career the way he wanted by pitching a full season which he did playing at the Double-A level and then retiring at season end.

After retirement, Rojas had many job offers, but he didn’t want to return to minor league baseball. “I stopped playing because I didn’t want to be in the minor leagues anymore and I didn’t want to be involved coaching the minor leagues,” says Rojas. He didn’t get back involved with baseball until the summer of 2010. He managed the Long Island Collegians which is a collegiate summer league team of the ACBL. “Coaching this team was an extreme joy and being involved with the team and the guys was a lot of fun,” says Rojas.

He is also currently the head coach of the Junior Varsity baseball team at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, New York and the school is very excited to have him on the coaching staff. “This was a great move for the St. Dominic program since our JV team is probably the most talented in 15 years at the school,” says Richard Garrett, the Dean of Students and Head Varsity Baseball Coach at St. Dominic,He will bring discipline and a work ethic that is in need to the young men when it is needed the most at one of the more difficult levels to coach high school baseball.”

His journey in baseball couldn’t have been any better than what it was. The journey may not be like many others and when looking back, Chris wouldn’t have wanted it any other way even though he never pitched in the major leagues. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I traveled the United States, traveled the Caribbean, and represented a nation. It was awesome.” He credits the coaching staff of NYIT for helping him reach his full potentials on and off the field. Rojas now lives in Middle Village, Queens and is married with one son and another child on the way.

 

 

 

 

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